Q&A with author Daniel Whitman
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As U.S. embassy spokesman in Port-au-Prince from 1999-2001, Daniel Whitman
closely observed the violence and chaos that derailed Haiti’s struggle for
democracy. Whitman, now with the State Department’s Africa bureau in
Washington, sees then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as a
populist-turned-dictator who stole the 2000 election and who either allowed
or directed his armed supporters to intimidate and murder his critics and
political opponents. It’s a view he expresses in his newly released book, A
Herald Caribbean correspondent Joe Mozingo interviewed Whitman about
Aristide’s devolution from a wildly popular priest who ministered in the
country’s slums to the autocratic ruler who was ousted Feb. 29, 2004.
Question: What’s the relevance of this book to someone trying to understand
the situation in Haiti today?
Answer: Some of the problems Haiti has today, the provisional government,
random murders, a climate of intimidation where no one quite understands who
is doing it: I hope the book creates a context by showing how the democratic
process fell apart.
Q: In your book you paint a picture of Aristide’s Lavalas Family party as
corrupt and murderous. His supporters deny everything.
A: In Haiti, you’ll almost never find hard evidence for anything. But there
are indicators. For example, a lot of criminal acts and murders were
committed in the name of Lavalas. These gangsters said they committed these
crimes on behalf of Lavalas. When asked yes or no, do these people speak for
you, Aristide never had an answer. He never said yes or no.
Q: But the book clearly gives the impression that the violence was directly
orchestrated by Aristide and Lavalas. Is that your view?
A: Yes. We know that Lavalas paid 200 or 300 troublemakers up to [$9 U.S.] a
day. They were disrupting life in the capital of Port-au-Prince. I saw it. I
took pictures with my own camera — police, ambulances, trucks, distributing
rocks for rock throwing, tires for tire burning. I was an eyewitness to all
this. My office had a window onto a part of the city that was very affected
by these things. There is hard evidence for the government of Haiti
facilitating the gangsters creating unrest in the capital city.
Q: Did you see the government delivering guns?
A: No I didn’t . . . There was a group, Fanmi Selavi. It was a place where
young boys lived and were supported by the Lavalas Party. Street kids.
Preadolescent. We know they were being trained to be paramilitaries. I met a
Swiss reporter who was onto the story who was told he must leave the country
immediately or he’d be killed . . . I never saw the inside of the place. I
knew the address. But if you knock on the door, you’re dead. So I never did.
Q: If Aristide’s supporters in the slums were so well-armed and organized,
as you write, how did such a small group of rebels overthrow him?
A: The people getting paid by Lavalas to create civil unrest, there were not
that many of them, 200 or 300. Now, in a country with no functioning police
and no army, a few hundred armed individuals can call the shots.
Q: Where would you put Aristide in Haiti’s pantheon of bad rulers?
A: Well, Aristide was seen as a liberator. He was a man of the people. He
was trained by Salesian monks as a promising young child with intellect. He
had tremendous popular support and support from the international community.
Why he turned against his own people, as I believe he did, I think you’d
have to be a psychoanalyst to understand.
Q: Why didn’t the White House do more to help.
A: There were constant statements saying, ”Try to do better.” I would
argue that these statements were very bland and were not strong enough to
convince the Haitian government that they meant business.
Q: Was this because [President Bill] Clinton had such a vested interest,
having reinstalled him (in 1994, following a coup three years before)?
A: I’ll let you draw your own conclusion on that one. I can’t say why the
criticism was never adequate as the Lavalas regime became more and more
Q: One of the claims in the book is that the foreign media missed this
devolving situation in Haiti.
A: Absolutely. The Haitians even have a word for it in their language. It
was called the blackout. They were very hurt, very personally and culturally
wounded. They believed there was a policy of some sort that prevented
foreign media from covering events in their country.
I don’t think there was a policy. But for example, CNN, which has bureaus
around the world, including Cuba, never had one in Haiti. The Associated
Press was writing about the situation every day, and American and European
newspapers rarely picked the stories up.
Q: You wrote fairly positively about the Democratic Convergence, the
political opposition that helped push Aristide out of power.
A: Democratic Convergence was the first alliance of parties in Haitian
history, I think, where you had a unified opposition. It’s real democracy if
there is an opposition. Previously, Haiti had various opposition, but only
splintered and fragmented.
Q: And also completely suppressed by previous rulers.
A: Yes. . . The regime would argue that the Convergence were all
reactionaries, right-wing bourgeois trying to seize power for their own
Q: Was there that element?
A: There was. The Convergence certainly included a wide spectrum from the
very genuine people who wanted to improve Haiti to, certainly, individuals
in it for their own personal benefit. The Convergence, did they truly
represent the people of Haiti? I can’t say. Many Haitians did not feel that
Convergence represented them, but others did.
Q: Now that Aristide’s gone, do you have any sense of where the country is
A: Only a fool would predict what’s going to happen to Haiti.
or through the Haiti Democracy Project at firstname.lastname@example.org. It will be
available on Amazon.com within a few weeks.